The Climate Impact of Digital and Dirty Data

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The impact of digital technology and 'dirty data' on the natural world

Digital innovation impacts every aspect of our lives. Digital algorithms weave through the cars we drive, our homes and the environments we work in. However, the unprecedented rise in the use of digital has created concerns regarding its impact on the natural world, the so-called ‘Dirty data’ contribution to climate change.

Having recognised the impact that dirty data may be having on the planet, developers are looking to optimise technologies while also minimising their carbon footprint. But what is dirty data?

Anything that takes up unnecessary space on the global database – and we are all guilty. For example, do you have duplicated photos on your mobile phone? Do you ever use two or more electronic devices at once? Do you focus on something else while streaming TV or video content? When was the last time you cleared archives in your messaging services like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger? Do you have text messages that are years old and you’ll never read again?

Unwanted dirty data sits on digital devices or in the cloud, which might seem very insignificant on an individual basis, but scale it up to the entire UK and this dirty data accumulates rapidly.

According to the Institute of Engineering and Technology [1], unwanted photos alone are thought to account for up to 10.6kg of CO2 emissions every year, and, just one hour of video streaming has a carbon footprint of roughly 55g of CO2. With adults in Britain spending an average of 40 hours a week streaming video, that equates to over 113kg of CO2 annually, which would be the same as driving just under 300 miles.

General concerns are being raised about how digital technologies are adding global warming. One source from 2019 indicated that consumption of energy by information and communication technologies was increasing by 9% every year [2]. This remains controversial given the difficulty of measuring the environmental impact of digital technologies and the speed with which solutions are developed, but it does highlight an interesting issue.

Digital on the green front.

However, digital solutions, particularly artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, may also be part of the solution to climate change. The Royal Society [3] has already reported the potential for AI to be applied to support significant societal changes, including what can be done in the quest for net zero. Digital could help us upscale renewable energy production, minimise energy waste and combat the climate crisis more efficiently.

But how does this affect dentistry? Although there are no current studies looking into the amount of unused and unwanted data saved within the dental world, we could safely assume it is substantial. Records for patients you haven’t seen in years, duplicated x-ray images saved in files, old postal addresses and other incorrect information all join the heap of dirty data.

Some of this data – especially old patient information – must be be kept on the system, but there may be some opportunities to clean up databases, empty trash folders or sort through archives. You’ll be doing your small bit for the planet and your practice may even benefit from increased available memory.

Simply being aware of the small ways you can have an effect on the planet is important. Just 10 minutes spent sorting photos on your mobile phone next time you sit down with a cup of tea would be beneficial. It’s quick and easy, but it will make a difference.

The next British Dental Conference and Dentistry Show Birmingham will be held on Friday 13th and Saturday 14th May 2022, Birmingham NEC, co-located with DTS. There will be plenty of IT experts on hand to offer advice on how to safely arrange your data for maximum benefit, as well as other ideas about reducing your carbon footprint, so, why not come along? That’s in addition to 200+ speakers, 100+ hours of content, 400+ exhibitors and 10,000+ visitors.

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1] The Institute of Engineering and Technology. Dirty data. Media Hub. Press Release. October 2021. [November 2021]

2] The Shift Project. Learn ICT: Towards digital sobriety”: Our new report on the environmental impact of ICT. March 2019. [Accessed November 2022]

3] The Royal Society. Digital technology and the planet. December 2020. [Accessed November 2021]